Growing Minds

Growing Minds is an innovative and ground-breaking initiative to improve school readiness in disadvantaged communities including antenatal provision.

Educational Attainment
Growing Minds


Growing Minds is a collaborative early years project in Oxfordshire, working to bridge the educational disadvantage gap for children entering school. This ambitious initiative is a partnership between three organizations: Peeple, Home-Start Oxford, and The Berin Centre. Presently, it operates in two areas: Littlemore and Berinsfield. Growing Minds Growing Minds consists of three evidence based interventions – Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (one free gifted book per month for every child registered from birth to five), Peep Learning Together groups and sustained 1:1 family support.

The Challenge

Oxfordshire’s educational excellence is world renowned. But a disadvantaged child in Oxfordshire is further behind at the start of primary school than an average English disadvantaged child. At the start of school, children are assessed as to whether they have a Good Level of Development at the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). When children from disadvantaged backgrounds in Oxfordshire start school they are typically 5.5 months behind their classmates. As they progress through school, this deficit affects the rate at which they learn, and so the gap grows. By the time they are 16 the gap is more than 21.5 months. Despite Oxfordshire’s reputation for academic excellence, this gap is even wider than in England as a whole (19 months).

The need for support has increased due to the extraordinary pressures that families have faced during the pandemic; for example, the percentage of pupils at John Henry Newman Academy (Littlemore) achieving or exceeding the expected standard at the end of Reception fell from 57% in 2019 to 11% in 2021, and from 70% to 50% at Abbey Woods Academy (Berinsfield).

The Public Health Outcomes Framework (PHOF) was updated February 2023 with new data which showed that Oxfordshire is worse than the national average on areas identified as priorities by the OIEP's Educational Attainment Working group regarding school readiness. These include:

• percentage of children with free school meal status achieving a good level of development at the end of Reception (Persons 5 yrs) (Oxon 43.1% vs  England 49.1%)

• percentage of children with free school meal status achieving the expected level in the phonics screening check in Year 1 (Persons 6 yrs) (Oxon 51.1% vs England 62%)

• percentage of children achieving the expected level in the phonics screening check in Year 1 (Persons 6 yrs) (Oxon 74.5% vs England 75.5%)


The project is currently based in Berinsfield and Littlemore. These communities have existing projects and services that are established, well received, with an interest in working in partnership. They also have a high percentage of children in income-deprived households.

The Learning Together Study was a randomised controlled trial of the Peep Learning Together Programme which found that that it made a positive difference of an additional two months' progress over a five-month period to children’s early literacy development. However, the programme made the greatest difference to children eligible for Early Years Pupil Premium, who made an additional four months' progress in core language skills and in communication, and three months' additional progress in early literacy development.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library also has long lasting impact data behind its outcomes. Dr Caroline Zwierzchowska-Dod, Swansea University, carried out research for her PhD which found that parents receiving Imagination Library books were 30% more likely to read daily with their child than parents outside the programme. It also found that children in the Imagination Library for more than a year had a 40% increased chance of achieving the “Good Level of Development” standard, and a 54% increased chance of achieving the Early Learning Goal for reading, compared to children with similar characteristics who were not in the programme.

Growing Minds are looking at enhancing and scaling this programme:

Enhancing Growing Minds: Current learning shows we would increase our reach and impact by starting antenatally, rather than from-birth. This would expand the partnership potential with statutory services and engage parents when they are most receptive. The Peep antenatal programme is a well-established course that we would use to engage families from the very beginning of their child’s lives.

Scaling Growing Minds: The model is adaptable to any area, through partnership with local parents and organisations, flexing to local strengths and needs. We see particular scope for Growing Minds in the Leys, if funding was available. Both Peeple and Home-Start Oxford have a long history in this area, and Parent Power would be great partners, but early years provision for families is very limited.

OIEP aims to work with Growing Minds to enable their expansion to the Leys.

You can read the Growing Minds Evaluation Summary here, which describes the impact and reach of the Growing Minds project.

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